Ten Ways in Which Your Thinking Can Become Distorted
By Alexandra S. Jackiw, CPM®, CAPS, C3P
In the last two blogs in this series about thinking, we examined how people process information and the four unique thinking styles that scientists have identified. Now let’s examine how, regardless of what kind of thinker you may be, your thinking can become distorted if you are not vigilant and aware. There are ten major ways in which all of us may be distorting information:
Some people take negative details and magnify them while filtering out all of the positive aspects of a situation. A single detail may be picked out and the whole event becomes colored by this detail. When we pull negative things out of context, isolated from all the good experiences around us, we make them larger and more awful than they really are.
The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices. Things are black or white, good or bad. We tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground. The greatest danger in polarized thinking is its impact on how we judge ourselves. For example – we have to be perfect or we are failures.
Some thinkers come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, we expect it to happen over and over again. “Always” and “never” are cue words that this style of thinking is being utilized. This distortion can lead to a restricted life, as we avoid future failures or disappointments based on a single incident or event.
- MIND READING
Mind reading depends on a process called “projection.” Without their saying so, we know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to divine how people are feeling toward us. We imagine that people feel the same way we do and react to things the same way we do. Therefore, we do not watch or listen carefully enough to notice that they are actually different. Mind readers tend to jump to conclusions that are true for them, without checking whether they are true for the other person.
Thinkers who catastrophize expect disaster. We notice or hear about a problem and start asking “what ifs.” What if that happens to me? What if tragedy strikes? There are no limits to a really fertile catastrophic imagination. An underlying catalyst for this style of distortion is that we do not trust in ourselves and our capacity to adapt to change.
If you are a thinker who personalizes, you tend to relate everything around you to yourself. For example, thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you. You also compare yourself to others, trying to determine who is smarter, more successful, better looking, etc. The underlying assumption is that your worth is in question. You are, therefore, continually forced to test your value as a person by measuring yourself against others. If you come out better, you get a moment’s relief. If you come up short, you feel diminished. The basic thinking error is that you interpret each experience, each conversation, each look as a clue to your worth and value.
- FEELING CONTROLLED
There are two ways that we can distort our sense of power and control – external and internal. If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless — a victim of fate. We do not believe we can really affect the basic shape of our lives, let alone make any difference in the world. The truth of the matter is that we are constantly making decisions and that every decision affects our lives. On the other hand, the fallacy of internal control has us responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. This leaves us exhausted as we attempt to fill the needs of everyone around us and we feel responsible for doing so (and guilty when we cannot).
- PERCEIVING UNFAIRNESS
If your thinking is filtered based on unfairness, you feel resentful because you think you know what’s fair, but other people will not agree with you. Fairness is so conveniently defined, so temptingly self-serving, that each person gets locked into his or her own point of view. It is tempting to make assumptions about how things would change if people were only fair or really valued you. But the other person hardly ever sees it that way and you end up causing yourself a lot of pain and ever-growing resentment.
Blaming often involves making someone else responsible for choices and decisions that are actually our own responsibility. We hold other people responsible for our pain or take the other tack and blame ourselves for every problem. In blame systems, we deny our right (and responsibility) to assert our needs, say no, or go elsewhere for what we want.
Thinkers who are trapped in this distortion have a list of ironclad rules about how they and other people should act. People who break the rules anger us and we feel guilty if we violate the rules. The rules are right and indisputable and, as a result, we are often in the position of judging and finding fault in ourselves and in others. Cue words indicating the presence of this distortion are should, ought, and must.
So take the time to analyze your potential distortions. The beliefs and assumptions that are part of your thinking usually work in most situations. However, when do those same beliefs and assumptions block information that is important, new or might have changed since your beliefs were established? Was it your own experience? Is it still true? Did it come from someone else? Is it still accurate?
Understanding our thinking styles and how our thinking can potentially be distorted, is a big first step in fine-tuning our decision-making in the workplace. Being more aware of how we think and arrive at decisions will ultimately improve internal communications, employee development, and customer relations.
John Maxwell said it best in his book Thinking for a Change: “To do well in life, we must first think well.” To do well in business we must also think well. Thinking well allows for better decision-making.